Happy New Bird

Personal, Travel

December was a month full of highlights: despite 2021 being another year in pandemic, we made it through and made the most out of it, focusing on discovering the local gems of Andalucia and learning more about the cultural and biodiversity richness of place we live in.

This month we had a few visitors, including friends and family, which was great but equally intense, so we took a few days in between to be alone, in the brand new place for us: Jerez de la Frontera, and Trebujena marshlands. We set the direction to a picturesque road passing through Teba, Campillos, Olvera and Algodonales where we could spot lagoons perfect for flamingos as well as the mountain ranges known for the griffon vultures presence.

In 2,5 hours of slow drive through the sunny landscape of Andalucía we reached our destination. Even before, I heard great things about Jerez for being a true capital for sherry wine and lively tavernas locally called trabancos. A very first bird metaphor was used for tapas on our very first visit: as each tapa arrives with un gorrion (common sparrow), a shot of a locally distilled sherry. The city itself is best to experience through walking, and stopping by randomly at those places, or entering one of the wine bodegas today often converted into great restaurants, like La Carbona. 

Jerez is famous for its Royal School of Equestrian Arts as well as the Cathedral which was very nicely decorated a weekend before the Christmas. After spending a day in Jerez and sobering well after those tasty ‘sparrows’, we changed the scenery to join our first Andalucia Bird Society field meeting in Bonanza.

Bonanza is a part of an equally interesting sherry town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda (we haven’t discovered yet), located at the mouth of Guadalquivir river entering the Atlantic Ocean, and opposite to the Doñana National Park. What strike at the very beginning are the huge ‘icebergs’ of salt, Salinas de Santa Teresa, abundant in that area and strategic material since the ancient times. Very close to it, we stopped by Laguna del Tarelo where the very first sightings were confirmed of the wintering and residing species of wading birds.

Thanks to our guide of the day, Juan Martin Bermudez we could see a daytime sleep of the Night Herons (who are foraging at night and have some interesting courtship behaviour of gifting a female with a green branch), as well as the appearance of a very rare, endangered species of the Marbled Teal (currently <55K species worldwide).

White-headed Ducks (coloured as the name mentions), Coot, Little Grebe, Grey Herons among other wading birds were seen on the water, while the Osprey and Red Kite appeared higher up the sky. We were very grateful to the fellow members for pointing us to the interesting sightings thanks to their scopes, which we hadn’t had at this point.

Passing through the vast marshlands of Trebujena, we made the next stop at the Esteros de Guadalquivir which offered us a great hide and sightings of Greater Flamingos, Black Redstart, Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt, Redshank, variety of Plovers, Pied Avocet, White Storks, Slender-billed Gulls and Caspian Tern. Up the river, we also so large vessels heading all the way to Seville, and, at a closer sight, we managed to see a Velvet and Common Scoter, occasionally passing through Andalucia during wintertime.

This great birding experience, combined with a jolly pre-Christmas atmosphere among the ABS members made us think that Santa should really get us a scope this year to continue our fantastic field discoveries. Upon our arrival from this trip, we wrote a special letter and few days later, probably thanks to the express postal services of the local Collared Doves, we got it!

Our first local birding trip got us to Guadalhorce on a New Year’s Day to celebrate the 2022 arrival, hoping for the better to this world of humans and animalia, and gave us a delightful day of observing both Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Grey Herons hunting for the moles, gregarious Stilts, and the best of all: another time a Velvet Scoter!

To top it up, one of the fellow birders pointed us to the unforgettable scene of the Osprey-gourmand eating up his fish on the outpost. Apparently this particular Osprey returns since 16 years already to Malaga for the wintering season from Germany. Learning about it, it felt very emotional to be a witness of all the birds, and more what’s happening around us all the time. What a way to start a year and wish that everyone finds their own Happy New Bird! Believe me, witnessing the nature’s beauty and collecting sightings is much more precious than any NFT collection out there.

Vulture Culture – around Estepona and Casares

Travel

This autumn we had a lot of reasons to discover our fascinating Costa del Sol region further, thanks to our friends who moved to Estepona for a few months. Willing to spend some time with them, we headed for a weekend there, combining the urban, coastal and hiking highlights, including birdwatching some of the most impressive species out there: a Griffon Vulture (Buitre Leonado in Spanish).

Estepona is a ‘garden town’ of Andalucia, influenced heavily by its coastal location nearby the Gibraltar Strait. Founded its first civilisation during the Bronze Age, nowadays it is a picturesque Andalucian town with a lot of vegetation, flower plants and art all over the place.

There is about 14 km of a coastal path meandering around various gardens. About 30 buildings in Estepona are painted with the original murals, or encrypted with of some piece of poetry on its elevations. The beauty of it soothes so much, that we felt relaxed as soon as we found a parking slot. Probably the only stressful part of staying in Estepona. You can also choose to arrive by bus, frequently passing from Malaga or Cadiz/Algeciras/La Linea.

We took a stroll around the city centre, watched the orange trees grow their first fruits of this season, and took a lot of new pictures from different angles. Estepona offers a lot of daytime attractions apart from being a very picturesque town (an Orchidarium, Selwo Aventura among others), while during the night, there is a lot of romantic restaurants offering wine tastings and tapas.

The proximity of the Gibraltar Strait creates an interesting microclimate and marks a historically important location of Estepona in between the continents and the seas. During our long walk with our friends, I was able to catch some magic moments of the sun setting down somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, on the other side of the Strait, and some interesting seagull flocks too.

The next day, we drove a very pleasurable, winding road all the way up to Casares, a picturesque ‘white town’ in the mountain range of Sierra de Bermeja. It is famous for various reasons: a birthplace of Blas Infante, a staging ‘sponge town’ in Mario Bros 64 from 1996, and for being inhabited by a large group of Griffon Vultures.

We took a circular hiking path around the town, where we admired magnificent views over Gibraltar Strait, as well as Sierra de Bermeja, heavily affected by a large wildfire this year. The damage took over 100 000 m2 and lasted for over a month until its full extinction. The saddest thing of all is that it was not a simple effect of the climate change (wildfires happen in this region quite often). It was set on purpose by some monstrous beings, who knew how difficult the extinction may be in the steep mountain range, in the weather conditions of a strong wind blowing from the West. A single drop did not fall during 10 initial days of the extinction and only thanks to a heavy fall which happened afterwards, the fire got under control. It is a very painful memory of this summer 2021, knowing that one brave firefighter lost his life, among hundreds of wild animals inhabiting the forest and thousands of the inhabitants had to be evacuated to a temporary shelter.

Fortunately, we could see how the nature recuperates, after all. The trees and the whole ecosystem, although so heavily damaged, seem to be recovering slowly. The aftermath of that fire may still affect Costa del Sol in many unpleasant ways – making the winters colder and the summers hotter, reducing the mild  microclimate known around the world.

We were fortunate also for another reason: on that day, several couples of the Griffon Vulture were hovering in the air surrounding Casares. Because of the proximity of a few motorway junctions and local roads, the local ornithologists created a special Vulture Feeding Stations where the birds can safely enjoy their prey. One of these stations is located close to Casares and this is why we could notice these powerful and very helpful animals. The town of Casares seem to like them as well, decorating various outposts (e.g. the church towers) with the vulture silhouettes.

Looking at the vultures a bit more closely, we could observe a special nuptial flight, when the male flies above the female, just before the mating. Hopefully next year there will be more of them welcoming us. This weekend trip was one of those mini breaks, when you can focus and appreciate the nature around you, and nothing else. Especially in the good company of your friends, spending their autumn in such a pleasant, special part of the world.

All the birdsongs of Doñana

Travel

I must have mentioned that autumn marks one of my favourite seasons in Andalucia. The heat in the air becomes bearable, the morning and evenings bring refreshing breeze and between September-October we can see most of the migrating bird species from the North of Europe. Some people migrate too, escaping short and dark days, carrying their caravans all the way to the Southernmost part of Spain which can be easily observed by the types of traffic on the motorway linking Spain and Portugal.

Mild(er) temperatures make it easier to hit the road, as well and enjoy the ride in the sun. Mid-October we visited Huelva Province’s gem for a weekend: the National Park of Doñana, one of the most spectacular outpost to observe wildlife species, almost undisturbed by the human presence. Until the 1950s there were more wolves than people around here which speaks for its wilderness.

October proved to be not the best season to visit this area though, especially after this year’s extremely hot and dry summer season, as the wetlands attracting thousands of migrating birds, were still dry. We mostly saw ‘wild’ horses and ‘wild’ cattle – distant cousins of the North American mustangs, brought there by the colonial forces all the way from the Huelva province, nowadays co-habiting the land with horse keepers from the peculiar town, El Rocio.

El Rocio is a spectacle of its own: build in 20th century, looks like a movie setting for the western type of films, and in all honesty, it is a bit of a Spanish Wild West. Inhabited by less than 2000 people on a daily basis, is known for its religious celebrations around the last weekend of May, as it attracts millions (!) of Holy Brotherhoods from all over Europe, to celebrate the existence of the Virgin of Rocio. It is then also a place where a lot of drinking and bravado happens all over town, contrary to what the guides from the National Park would like to see.

There are no roads nor cobble stone in El Rocio, it is all covered in sand and people mostly ride horses all over the village. Watch out for them even in the night when the Holy Brotherhoods celebrate singing chants and drinking a lot of wine! The traditional character of El Rocio makes it hard to see any culinary spots other than the most typical Spanish food, not even a pizza place. No wonder why pope JPII praised its conservative, religious character wishing that the ‘whole world be like El Rocio’. After the initial few hours in town, we were rather overwhelmed by the religious chauvinism, and escaped to visit the natural side of Doñana.

Early in the morning, we took a trip along the National Park, spotting dozens of deers, bores, spoonbills, storks and partridges. Despite the eye for the species, we weren’t able to see the Iberian Lynx, a species which lives a great success of re-introducing on the Iberian Peninsula for the last 20 years. From 12 to over 2000 of inhabitants, between Spain and Portugal! Still, they are endangered, mostly subject to being hit by cars on the local roads, which don’t respect the signs ‘Paso de Linces’ and a recommended speed of 40 kmph.

On the other hand, we were able to see roaming birds of prey, including the red kite – not so common anymore in Spain. Birdwatching continues to be the most relaxing and rewarding, mindful activity after long weeks of working with code and text. Only after two days we notice how the eye accommodates to the new stimuli!

Eventually, we spent some time at the vast, Atlantic sandy beaches, almost empty around this time of the year. The water was incredibly warm and pleasant to bathe and swim and we managed to get some last tan this year. We are definitely returning to Doñana sometime in the winter/spring, hopefully to see it more wetland species and less of the horse bravado.

Costa de la Luz – tribute to the sun

Travel

Last week the summer officially started, bringing long, intense days, scorching sun, smell of the sea and the appetite to discover new places around. As soon as the travel between the provinces had been allowed, I set myself to my revisit my beloved Ocean, the part of Andalucia called Costa de la Luz. After last year’s visit to Tarifa, I always wanted to return there as much as I could. 

Leaving at the sunrise, the roads were still pretty empty and it was such a pleasure driving slowly around the steep mountains nearby Marbella, changing naturally into the landscape of vast fields, Atlantic forest and dunes as soon as you leave towards the Cadiz province. From time to time I could see the birds of prey or even vultures hovering in the sky just above the car.

Passing by the white towns of Vejer and Barca, I chose my first destination: Conil de la Frontera. At the end of May there was still only a handful of people visiting and it allowed me to enjoy the vast Ocean beaches almost alone, something hard to imagine during the high season. I took my Mom with me as she loves this type of places and it was a great reunion for us to spend a few days together in such a scenery. Conil is one of the most picturesque ‘white towns’, founded by the Phoenicians, famous for the Spanish Reconquista and for its almadraba fishing method. 

The appreciation for the local cuisine led me to check the menu of various taverns, who compete for the most creative tuna dishes. My absolute favourite in Conil would go to Taberna Chanca, full of creative yet simple tapas. I rarely repeat places when travelling, but I enjoyed it so much, I returned there after 2 weeks, this time with my partner. I only hope that the traditional method has the appreciation for this magnificent species. Even the local Virgen del Carmen is blessing the fishermen and the tuna itself.

From the natural paradise lens, another place that completely blew my mind was the endless lagoon on Playa de Castilobo with an ancient Moorish tower, currently inhabited by Hermit Ibises, re-introduced by the group of local ornithologists. Its colonies once existed all over Europe, North Africa and Middle East, and currently it is considered one of the most endangered species on our planet. There, you can hear and watch a few couples, producing synthetic, squeaky sounds and breeding happily – it is a treat for bird watcher’s eye. 

On the way between Conil, Palmar and Barbate there is also a lot of hiking trails around the Natural Park of Brena and Marismas, leading through steep ocean cliffs and forests. I met no one there, except from a few rabbits and a hoopoe! If the visibility is good, it is quite easy to observe the other side of the Gibraltar Strait, and Atlas Mountains in Morocco. 

During my second trip, I stayed at the laid-back town of Zahara de los Atunes, where again I spent a lot of active time on the beach, hiking and enjoying the local 0 km cuisine. A special mention goes to the Taberna del Campero for a lovely treat, heart-warming patio where not only humans, but also doves have their special place. The waiters were quite mindful of the pair of doves, nesting on the patio, disregarding the comment of some customers about the presence of the birds. They simply said “Yes, there are doves here. They live here with us. And they have little chicks now, that’s why we put them a special nesting cardboard to help them out”. 

The importance of being respectful, not only to the local towns visiting, but also the animals living there, like the mentioned tuna, gekkoes, spoonbills, storks and herons one can notice when spending time next to the lagoons and beaches. The South of Spain has an incredible offer for the nature lovers and slow travellers – we cannot destroy it with the new wave of massification of the tourism. And here comes my tribute to the sun, sand and sea. 

Senda Litoral to Marbella – on four wheels

Personal, Travel

The title of this month’s post is only slightly misleading. It has been a long, intense and beautiful month for me and I can’t pin point a single cause of that fact, so I have to choose one. And it is the general kinetic pleasure of being able to travel, on four wheels, further than usual, as the movement restrictions and over six months of Estado de Alarma have been lifted. 

On FOUR wheels though? What happened to the Peugeot urban bike who was a protagonist of most of my recent posts? Here comes the pun! Two bikes equal four wheels (let’s not forget about the brave Kross who came with us all the way from Berlin, and earlier, from Poland!), true. But the fact is, the bikes share a parking lot with a car now! And the best part of it is, that in order to buy the car, we went over 50 kms using our own bikes, to the big surprise of the seller. Who started to doubt if we really need a car, even prior to see us driving it. 

Let me tell you about the way first. Since I moved to Costa del Sol, I started fantasizing of a long bike ride towards the Cadiz coast and learned, that currently, the path leads almost to Estepona, with some degree of creativity. Since I am not a big fan of using the major roads crowded with cars, I try to look for an alternative. It is not as easy in Malaga though as it is in more plain provinces. On one hand, you are limited by the rocks at the sea, and on the other by the steep mountains. So the choice of roads to use is fairly limited. There is a way to reach Marbella/Estepona currently, using the beautiful Senda Litoral via Mijas Costa, but only during weekdays and particular timeframes, not clashing with the pedestrians (9-11 am or 2-4 pm). So here comes the right amount of creativity and planning into the mix. 

While the town of Cala de Mijas looks like the most of the other Costa del Sol beach towns, the magic starts after passing by the next town, Sitio de Calahonda. There is where the Natural Park of Dunas de Artola brings peaceful landscapes of vegetation, sandy beaches and if you are lucky, you can recognize colourful flowers and birds on the way. We were very lucky to hear, and then spot about three hoopoes on that particular ride! Although some of the legends claim that to hear the hoopoe’s call brings sudden death, I prefer to attribute it to the springtime nuptial ceremonies among this species. Especially when I am learning to drive once again. Apparently, the females choose the most attractive male by the quantity, frequency and profoundness of their calls. To learn more about the hoopoe, I truly recommend the movie ‘Return of the Hoopoe‘!

But it is not all about the hoopoe. The vegetation and the wildlife observed by this beautiful path is endless, especially during springtime. The path offers whale and dolphin spotting outposts, especially around Fuengirola’s nudist beaches, making the others doubt if you really do whale or birdwarching (facepalm). This least pleasant part of the ride goes close to the motorway, so escaping the ongoing sound of the roaring engines by looking at the big blue is one of the best strategies to enjoy this 8 km ride. However, I recently learned that the local authorities plan to build a proper path, further down the rocky coast and not so close to the motorway. Judging by the amount of the runners, bikers and pedestrians it is a great idea.

The reality though, at least for now, is that we can’t go wherever we want to by our beloved four bike wheels. Hence, the decision to buy a car came just before turning 2 years living in Malaga, which is by the way, exactly today. Since we have not driven a car for many years, we are quite nervous behind the wheel but still love beautiful design and can’t agree to use a SUV, we decided for a fun, second hand car with a good condition and low mileage. So far we are still learning, yet the freedom to choose to go to the ocean or wherever we point the finger on the map, is priceless. 

Since then, almost three weeks passed and the car is not in use unless we go to practice or if we need to go somewhere further. I still recommend using collective transportation, bike or own feet to discover Andalucia, when possible, thinking about our own health, and the condition of our planet. 

Walking or driving slower, does not take the magic of the discovery, quite the opposite. Thanks to these long walks, lurking into and mindful registering of the nature, I was able to spot this gourmand sparrow, enjoying jamón ibérico, among other magical happenings that we miss by, if we live too fast.